Learning to Dream Big

by: Mark and Bethel Vatsaas

Throughout our adoption journey, we have tried to follow wherever God was leading. From the time God called us to adopt, we dreamed about meeting the kids God had chosen to add to our family. We never dreamed what else he had planned for us.

Our adoption application specified our preference for school age, legally-free kids. Wanting to leave God every option, we were willing to consider younger or legal-risk kids, but we didn’t believe that would happen and our expectations matched our preferences. Because we expected legally-free kids, we never expected to deal with birth parents at all, and in our minds they barely existed.

That all changed the day the county called with a potential placement. Instead of legally-free school-age kids, they offered us two legal-risk toddlers: Damien (2½) and Isaiah (1½). The birth parent we had expected to be out of the picture was suddenly popping up in the frame. It was such a shock that we prayed for two days before we were convinced that it wasn’t a mistake. One week later, they were in our home.

The boys’ single mother (we’ll call her Rita) was only 19. In addition to our boys, she had a third boy in a medically fragile placement due to drug use during pregnancy. Furthermore, she was pregnant again, and still using. We felt compassion for one so young who clearly needed to be adopted herself, but we also felt anger, resentment and even scorn for how her choices had caused so much harm.

It is impossible to describe just how difficult our lives became. We knew from our training that it would be hard, but we never imagined just how hard the reality would be. Already traumatized by their history of neglect, they were now dealing with the new trauma of leaving everything familiar to live with us. Damien clung to Mark like a barnacle, wanting (and desperately needing) to be held and carried at all times to relieve his anxiety. Every night between 11:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. Damien would wake up, crawl into our bed and practically smother us, unable to sleep without close physical contact. Isaiah would fly into a rage over the smallest thing, and we all bore the scars from his hitting, pinching, and biting. He also had night terrors, screaming bloody murder at 2:00  a.m., falling back to sleep only when we held him. What had been a peaceful home (as peaceful as it can be with four kids) became chaos, sucking the very life out of our entire family.

Visitation, suddenly a twice per week reality, was especially exhausting. Fitting the time required into our already busy lives was itself challenging, but the effect on the two boys was crushing. They had a strong bond with their mom, especially Damien, and the separation at the end of each visit reopened their wounds, escalating their normal level of rage and grief.

It was easy to lay much of the blame for our struggles at Rita’s feet. After all, her choices had caused the boys’ trauma that was now making our lives so difficult. Her attitude didn’t help, either. Threatened by us, she was rude, demanding, and unreliable. The day she failed to show up for visitation devastated the boys, and we had to pick up the pieces. We began to see the upcoming termination hearing as our salvation from the visitation burden, and our hope for the boys to finally start healing.

One month before the hearing, a scheduling error was discovered that forced the hearing to be rescheduled to some indefinite point in the future. We felt like we had been sentenced to prison. Rita, oblivious to our pain, was smugly delighted with the delay, and after months of lax compliance with the county’s rehabilitation plan, Rita began to turn things around. As we waited to get a new court date, Rita achieved her first full month of sobriety since the boys were placed with us. By the time the new court date was finally scheduled, Rita was confident that she would win back her boys.

It was during these long weeks of uncertainty that our pastor issued a challenge to our church, asking, “What are you willing to surrender to God to demonstrate your love and obedience?” We both knew immediately what we had to answer, and through grief and tears we prayed, “Yes, Lord. We will surrender these boys to you. We trust you.”

Rita’s confidence led her to tell the boys that they would be going home with her in just a couple months. Needless to say, we did not find this helpful to the boys’ state of mind. The case worker and the county attorney met with Rita and gave her a pretty stern reality check. They told her that it was by no means certain that she would get the boys back, and she must not lead the boys to believe otherwise. Even her own lawyer agreed that her recent improvement might be too little, too late. This conversation had a profound affect on her, and her cocky confidence disappeared. She became much more cooperative with the boy’s therapist, and noticeably more polite with us. The boys began to handle the visits better as they began to sense Rita’s change of heart.

As the new trial date approached, Rita asked the case worker to arrange a face-to-face meeting with us, and we met with her just three days before the court date. Rita explained that she knew that termination was likely, and that it was her fault for failing to get her act together earlier. Through tears, she told us she knew that we loved the boys, and if she couldn’t keep them, she was glad that they were going to be with us. Then, with visible fear, Rita asked if we would allow her to continue to see the boys after termination.

Fortunately, the boys’ therapist had prepared us for this possibility, and we had already considered how we would answer. We told her how we had prayed for the boys before we even knew them, and that we now prayed for her as well. We affirmed that we really do love her boys and that we want whatever is God’s best plan for them. We told her that we loved her too, and truly wanted her to succeed, even if it meant we didn’t get to adopt the boys. Finally, we told her that because of the strong attachment the boys have with her, we believe that cutting them off from her would only cause more trauma. We couldn’t say what it would look like, but as long as she stayed clean and safe, we would support a continued relationship.

After several hugs, we left the meeting in awe of God’s grace. God had used the delay of the trial to transform not only Rita’s attitude, but our hearts as well. The anger and resentment we had felt towards Rita had melted away, replaced by compassion and love. It was clear that God had a role for us to play in the birth mom’s life as well as her children. Three days later, the hearing was delayed for another five weeks. This latest delay meant that Rita would have four full months of sobriety behind her when we finally got back to court. We were disappointed, but trusted that God knew what he was doing.

In the last few days before the trial, we were surprised by how little anxiety we were feeling. We had, finally, completely surrendered the boys’ fate (and ours) to God, fully trusting that he would do whatever was best for them and for us. Mostly we just felt sad knowing that whatever the outcome, the boys were going to experience more pain. God had used the latest delay to make our hearts ready to fulfill the next part of his plan.

We walked into the courtroom about 20 minutes early to find Rita sitting completely alone. She had no one at all to support her, and she looked terrified. Without so much as a word to each other, we walked over and sat down on either side of her, comforting her with hugs and words until it was time for her to join her lawyer at the defense table.

The trial was hard on Rita, as her failures and their affect on her boys were listed in harsh, clinical detail. First, the boys’ therapist described the extent of their trauma, concluding with her expert opinion that returning to their birth mom would be even more traumatic. Then the case worker gave her testimony, concluding with her expert opinion that despite her recent improvements, Rita was not a fit parent. Each word hit Rita like a blow, and through it all, tears streamed down her face. It was an act of  mercy when the judge recessed for lunch.

As the lawyers and witnesses started heading for the door, Rita stood by her chair looking like a little lost lamb. We invited her to join us for lunch, and there we heard the rest of Rita’s story. Rita’s mother was only 13 when Rita was born. Her father was just 15. At 10 years old, Rita’s father abandoned them and her mom was addicted to drugs. From 10 to 15, Rita was the parent for her four younger siblings. Her younger sister even called her Mom. When she was 15, social services placed them all in foster care. Feeling like she had failed her family, she ran away from her foster home and she was pregnant a year later. We ached for the little girl in that story, and for the one returning to her trial.

The second half of the trial was even harder than the first. The pain Rita endured during the morning was relived during the closing arguments, and relived a third time as the judge read out his findings. Rita was weeping long before the judge gave his verdict, terminating Rita’s parental rights, and banged his gavel. The bailiff called out, “All rise” and the judge left for his chambers. Mark looked over just in time to see Rita wandering aimlessly out the door, and he followed her out into the hall. He found Rita sitting on a bench, sobbing uncontrollably. Mark sat beside her and held her, and soon Bethel was there, too. As Rita clung to us, we grieved for the grown-up-too-fast child in our arms.

The boys’ therapist later told us that when she walked into the court room and saw us sitting with Rita, it was clearly a “God thing.” We couldn’t agree more. Some people who hear our story try to tell us how admirable we are, but we know better. This was not our plan, and had we held tight to our misplaced expectations, we would have missed out on God’s much better plan.

If there is anything admirable in us, it is only there because God labored for months to put it there. Our dreams, you see, were simply too small. Although it was painful at the time, God had to clear our dreams away to make room for much bigger ones. We feel humble that he considered us worthy of it. God has plans for you as well. Are you ready?


This story is from www.project127.com.